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Tracing Darwish, then and now

Bijgewerkt op: 12 dec. 2023

Shira Wolfe

Art by Ivan Meštrović

This piece was originally published on 27 November 2023 in the Palestine Solidarity Zine created by Tabea Nixdorff (@readingerrata), the founder of the publication series Archival Textures (@archival_textures). Archival Textures was founded with the intention to find and (re)distribute writings of the past that can inform our current vocabularies of solidarity and resistance against normative perspectives on our bodies, desires, and forms of cohabitation. The text has been updated and expanded for this Mammoetje.

The Palestine Solidarity Zine can be ordered by DM to Tabea Nixdorff and is for sale at Limestone Books (Maastricht) and Perdu (Amsterdam).


Let’s go as we are:

a free woman

and a loyal friend,

let’s go together on two different paths

let’s go as we are united

and separate […]

(Mahmoud Darwish, “We Were Missing a Present,” A Butterfly’s Burden, translated from Arabic by Fady Joudah, Bloodaxe Books, 2007, 5.)

Like many writers, I sat down and wrote a text in the first days following October 7th, which came streaming out of me with a strong sense of urgency. This was the beginning part of my initial essay:

I am the granddaughter of Ukrainian-Jewish and Belarusian-Jewish immigrants who arrived in New York between 1912–1914, escaping racism, pogroms and increasingly dire circumstances for Jews. I have dear Palestinian and dear Israeli friends. I have spent some of the most significant moments of my life in Palestine, aware of my position as a free woman being able to move in and out of that space when I chose; embraced by the hospitality and care and love of its people. I was there as an artist collaborating on projects with Palestinian artists – together with the Amsterdam-based Transversal Theater Company, I worked on a play with actors from The Freedom Theatre in Jenin in 2015. In 2016, I returned to Palestine to work on a project about Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and the spaces of Palestine, which resulted in my master thesis, a short movie, and an exhibition.

As someone with Jewish heritage who has spent time in Palestine and Israel, I feel a strong sense of responsibility to add one more Jewish voice to the call for Palestinian justice, self-determination and liberation. In a world where everyone has an opinion and needs to share it instantly, where small snippets of information have mistakenly come to signify knowledge, the misconceptions about Palestine and Israel, Palestinians and Israelis, Arabs and Jews, have never appeared larger. Perhaps I was naive to think that after all these decades, more people would understand that you cannot conflate all these terms with each other. It is exhausting and disturbing for so many people (be they Jewish, Palestinian, or from any other background) to have to keep proving to others that supporting the Palestinian cause and opposing the decades-long oppression and aggression by the State of Israel does not in any way constitute anti-semitism, and does not mean that they do not empathise with the suffering of Israelis whose loved ones were killed or taken hostage on October 7th. The article of 21 November 2023 in the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant features Jewish people who speak about this experience. Organisations like Een Ander Joods Geluid and Erev Rav in The Netherlands, Een Andere Joodse Stem in Belgium, and Jewish Voice for Peace in the United States, are actively trying to dismantle the dangerous ideas that conflate criticism of the State of Israel, criticism of Zionism, and solidarity with Palestinians, with anti-semitism. It must also be reiterated again and again that it is draining and frankly insulting for Palestinians to be constantly asked to prove that they do not wish for or support horrific acts of violence. The fact is that right now the urgency is bigger than ever to get the world to truly comprehend the killing machine of the Israeli state and military apparatus, and its total disregard for the lives of Palestinian people.

Thankfully, over the past few weeks, there have been many voices with far more reach and influence than mine, sharing information and opinions and facts powerfully, sensitively and informedly. I’m thinking here of people like the Palestinian journalist Mohammed el-Kurd, Palestinian poet Mosab Abu Toha, Jewish-Hungarian trauma specialist Gabor Maté, Palestinian-Dutch poet Ramsey Nasr, the Bosnian-Serbian writer Lana Bastašić, organisations like Standing Together, Jewish Voice for Peace, news platforms like Electronic Intifada and the podcast project The Fire These Times, the list goes on and on. I genuinely believe it is important to keep thinking, speaking and writing, to keep collecting and sharing information, to keep doing in-depth research, keep standing up against misinformation, desensitisation, and a mere acceptance of the status quo and our failed state systems in response to the ongoing tragedy.

The following is a selection of fragments from my thesis, with which I sought to add a small contribution to the body of work that attests to a different narrative of space and identity on the land that now encapsulates both Israel and Palestine. While evoking poets, literary critics, philosophers and architects along the way, my aim was to add to the urgent call to justice and freedom for the Palestinian people.


A place is not only a geographical area; it’s also a state of mind. And trees are not just

trees; they are the ribs of childhood.

(Mahmoud Darwish, Journal of an Ordinary Grief, translated from Arabic by Ibrahim Muhawi, New York: Archipelago Books, 2010, 15.)

My understanding of the spaces of Palestine is irrevocably tied to the poetry of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, regarded as Palestine’s national poet. French phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard reminds us that “[…] poems are human realities; it is not enough to resort to ‘impressions’ in order to explain them. They must be lived in their poetic immensity.”[1] Poems must be lived and the spaces must be explored in order to truly

understand them.

A conversation between French architect Léopold Lambert[2] and Regine Debatty sums up

why I believe it is important to write about the spaces of Palestine in both a personal and

creative way. Responding to Debatty’s question about the possibility of remaining

impartial and neutral when writing about the Palestinian cause, Lambert responds: “[T]his

neutrality is the real trap. Neutrality is what maintains the status quo since 1967[3] by

considering that both nations, Israelis and Palestinians, are equally belligerent and should

become more reasonable. I don’t think that a lot of people who went there with an openminded approach share this vision of things.”[4] He is correct in implying that it is hard to comprehend quite how bad the situation is for Palestinians until seeing it for oneself.

Neutrality, after that, is impossible for most people.

Mahmoud Darwish, in a sense, has always accompanied me on my visits to Palestine. His

body of work is so evocative and speaks with such determination that the images it

conjures truly seem present in every space. His poems are not just an echo of the past, but, as Bachelard writes, “through the brilliance of an image, the distant past resounds with

echoes, and it is hard to know at what depth these echoes will reverberate and die away.”[5]

The poetic image creates action and dynamism, and it is impossible to let go of. Darwish had a complex understanding of the poetics of space, the politics of dispossession, and the realities of love. His work, as put by Palestinian-American literary critic Edward Said, author of groundbreaking books including Orientalism (1978) and The Question of Palestine (1979), “amounts to an epic effort to transform the lyrics of loss into the indefinitely postponed drama of return.”[6]

Like so many Palestinians, Darwish lost his home in 1948 when complete villages were razed to the ground and new Israeli towns and settlements were built on the land. Though his village of Al Birwa no longer physically exists, the space where it used to be still carries its stories and histories, and it is a fascination with the different layers of space that incited me to start this project. Some digging around will often still uncover material traces of the past, like the little blue squares one finds on the beach in Jaffa that are remnants of the tiles of Arab houses that were demolished, or the old Arab cemetery and school building that are the only physical remainders of the village of Al Birwa and are left, overgrown, in stark contrast with the rest of the Israeli moshav[7] Ahihud. This project, then, is meant to uncover (seemingly lost) Palestinian spaces by travelling through Israel and Palestine with a psychogeographer’s[8] openness to wandering and keen searching for symbols. The search for Al Birwa – on the road east from Akka, now split between a sleepy kibbutz and moshav, is also a tribute to every lost Palestinian village and city that still has stories to tell.

Mother with Child, 1927 by Yugoslav sculptor Ivan Meštrović, photographs by Tošo Dabac in the book Ivan Meštrović by Duško Kečkemet (Verlag-Jugoslavija-Beograd, 1964)

Darwish, as a poet, constantly describes the situation of merging in and out of difference and sameness through the loving encounter. He often evokes an encounter between himself and a stranger, describing moments of utter separation and complete unison. It is my hope that identifying these moments of sameness and truth will help us to stop the cycle of merely identifying Palestine as a lost cause. This could then incite more people towards action. Jean Genet undertook such a project in his writing on Palestine.[9] His personal descriptions of encounters with Palestinians became his tool to bring people closer to the Palestinian cause.

Experiencing space through poetry and storytelling can suggest alternative realities to those dominating in society. Bachelard understood the importance of memory, poetic imagery, and the imagination in order to create space for new becomings: "The house, like fire and water, will permit me […] to recall flashes of daydreams that illuminate the synthesis of immemorial and recollected. In this remote region, memory and imagination remain associated, each one working for their mutual deepening. In the order of values, they both constitute a community of memory and image. Thus the house is not experienced from day to day only, on the thread of a narrative, or in the telling of our own story. Through dreams, the various dwelling-places in our lives copenetrate and retain the treasures of former days.”[10]

It is my hope that poetry, storytelling and art will continue to allow for Bachelard’s waves of newness to flow over the surface of being, opening up contested spaces to infinite possibilities. Collective moments of truth will have a chance to flourish then, where the radicality of love, art, and space will be able to burst outward and explore new routes.


I wrote this thesis back in 2016. We now find ourselves in 2023, in the midst of a horrifying, heartbreaking siege on Gaza, an unimaginable mass massacre. It is hard to be as hopeful as my writing from years ago suggests about the possibilities of poetry, art and storytelling in the face of this amount of destruction and suffering. Yet when politicians fail to listen and fail to take action, poetry and art are there at least to grieve together, and to amplify the voices and the stories that those in power disregard.

Mahmoud Darwish was placed under a city-arrest of 10 years during the ‘60s, meaning he was forbidden from leaving Haifa, forbidden, even, to set foot in his mother’s home, which was in close proximity to Haifa. In Journal of an Ordinary Grief, he writes:

You obtain a certificate that proves you exist, and you do eventually obtain a

laissez-passer, but the question is, ‘How are you going to pass?’ You are in Haifa,

and the airport is near Tel Aviv. You ask the police for a permit to pass from Haifa to

Tel Aviv and they refuse. The lawyer intervenes, and some members of the Knesset, but

the police still refuse. You think you will be more clever and devious than they are, and

decide to leave by way of the sea at the Port of Haifa on the understanding that you

have the right to pass to the port. You rejoice at your cleverness. You buy a ticket, and

you pass through passport control, the health department, and customs without any

hindrance. Then, when you are close to the ship, they arrest you and take you to court.

This time, you insist that the law is on your side.

But in court you discover that the Port of Haifa is part of the State of Israel, and not

part of the city, and they remind you that you are forbidden to be in any part of Israel

outside Haifa, and the port according to the law is outside the city. You are found


You say to them: ‘Gentlemen, now that I understand the law, I want to make a

dangerous confession. I swim in the sea every day, which belongs to the State of Israel

and not the city of Haifa, and I do not have a permit to enter the sea.’

I have another confession as well: ‘I enjoy the weather in the city of Haifa, and the

weather belongs to the State of Israel and not the city of Haifa. I do not have a permit

to enter the weather because the sky I see above me does not belong to Haifa, and I do

not have a permit to sit under the sky.’

Then you ask for a permit to live in the wind, and they smile.

(Mahmoud Darwish, Journal of an Ordinary Grief, translated from Arabic by Ibrahim Muhawi, New York: Archipelago Books, 2010, 67)

It is 2023 and there is no Darwish to stand up in court and say: “Gentlemen…” Palestinians are being stripped of every basic human right; there is only blood, death, and horror. Decision-makers sit in rooms for weeks and talk about why they cannot agree to a ceasefire and forget that human beings are not hypothetical numbers or inanimate objects but are people who love and want to live. There is a temporary, few days pause in the bombardments and attacks on Gaza in order to carry out a hostage exchange, after weeks of people all over the world calling for a ceasefire. Given the statements made by Israel about preparing for “future operations,” it seems unlikely that this ceasefire will last long. In a later chapter of Journal of an Ordinary Grief, Darwish writes:

At a dark hour of the night the world repairs to the bedroom.

Its day was full. Tranquillity engulfed the earth. The trappings of Western civilization still wrestled with human will in Asia. The soil of Asia was dying, the people of Asia were dying, and the rivers swept away those who missed their encounter with the trappings of civilization. Close to the Mediterranean Sea, military boots made in the West still trampled down the old culture and the new human being. In ordinary, very ordinary, news bulletins whole fields of children were mowed down because they were Arabs and had the power to grow up.

At a late hour of the morning the world rises and leaves the bedroom for the operations room. Its night was clear, with nonstop dreams of happiness.

In this manner the world sleeps.

In this manner the world wakes from its sleep.

And in this manner it forgets all about me.

It does not remember me except when I seek death or when I seek life.

(Mahmoud Darwish, Journal of an Ordinary Grief, translated from Arabic by Ibrahim Muhawi, New York: Archipelago Books, 2010, 128-129)

Gaza seeks life, and the world has once more woken from its sleep. As we move towards a new year, let us try to keep the world awake. There will be no fundamental safety and peace for anyone, until everyone is free from oppression.

As you prepare your breakfast, think of others

(do not forget the pigeon’s food).

As you wage your wars, think of others

(do not forget those who seek peace).

As you pay your water bill, think of others

(those who are nursed by clouds).

As you return home, to your home, think of others

(do not forget the people of the camps).

As you sleep and count the stars, think of others

(those who have nowhere to sleep).

As you express yourself in metaphor, think of others

(those who have lost the right to speak).

As you think of others far away, think of yourself

(say: If only I were a candle in the dark).

(Mahmoud Darwish, "Think of Others," Almond Blossoms and Beyond, translated from Arabic by Mohammed Shaheen, Northampton, Massachusetts: Interlink Books, 2009, 3)


If you would like to support those affected in Gaza, please consider donating to: The Palestine Red Crescent Society via, The Palestine Children’s Relief Fund via and Connecting Gaza, the initiative that helped Gazans stay connected through e-sim donations from people around the world, which is now partnering with the Egyptian Food Bank, Egyptian Cure Bank and Egyptian Clothing Bank to send aid trucks to Gaza. To support the continued development of art and community empowerment in these heavy times in the West Bank, please donate to The Freedom Theatre in Jenin refugee camp.

Notes [1] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, (Boston: Beacon Press Books, 1994), 210. [2] Lambert has written extensively on the colonial politics of space in Israel and Palestine. He is the editor-in-chief of The Funambulist magazine, dedicated to researching the politics of space, and is the author of several books about the political relationship of architecture and bodies. [3]1967 is the year of the Six-Day War during which Israel seized East-Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan, both of which had been under Jordanian rule since 1948, the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, and the Golan Heights from Syria. This resulted in a new stream of Palestinian refugees and new borders. [4] Léopold Lambert, The Funambulist Pamphlets Volume 06: Palestine, (New York: Punctum Books, 2013), 89. [5] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, (Boston: Beacon Press Books, 1994), XVI. [6] Edward Said, “Reflections on Exile,” Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2000, ePUB edition), 142. [7] A type of Israeli settlement, a cooperative agricultural community. [8] Psychogeography is the practice of drifting through the environment, and letting the surroundings be the guide. Being open to chance is crucial here, since this will allow for surprising and unplanned discoveries. [9] Jean Genet, Prisoner of Love, translated to English by Barbara Bray, New York: New York Review Books, 2003. [10] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Boston: Beacon Press Books, 1994, 193.


Shira Wolfe is a Dutch-American poet, writer and translator with a background in theatre. She writes poetry in English and translates her poems to Dutch and Serbian. Her writing practice intersects with socially engaged projects, including leading multilingual poetry workshops at an asylum seekers centre in the Netherlands.

Mahmoud Darwish was born on the 13th of March 1941 in al-Birwa, a village in the Western Galilee in Palestine. In 1948, when the State of Israel was formed, he and his family, along with all the other inhabitants of the village, were expelled from their land and homes. They fled to Lebanon, only to discover upon returning to Palestine that they had become stateless, and that their village had been totally destroyed and rebuilt for its new Israeli inhabitants. Darwish began writing poetry as a form of resistance to the injustices and occupation. He wrote over two dozen books of poetry and prose in his lifetime, including: Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone?, A River Dies of Thirst, Mural, The Butterfly's Burden, Don't Apologize for What You've Done, Almond Blossoms and Beyond, If I Were Another, Unfortunately, It Was Paradise, The Adam of Two Edens, Journal of an Ordinary Grief, Memory for Forgetfulness, and In the Presence of Absence. In 2001, he was awarded the Lannan Cultural Freedom Prize. When he died on the 9th of August 2008, he was mourned throughout the world as the voice of the Palestinian people.

Artwork: Mother with Child, 1927 by Yugoslav sculptor Ivan Meštrović, photographs by Tošo Dabac in the book Ivan Meštrović by Duško Kečkemet (Verlag-Jugoslavija-Beograd, 1964)

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